Redis and Open Source—What Will the Consequences Be?

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The world of open source has moved from being a niche interest that was the province of academics and self-described geeks to the mainstream. From being the purview of free software interest groups, open source is now ubiquitous. According to OpenUK, open source is used by 78% of private enterprises, and open source components and code are present in roughly 97% of all applications, proprietary or otherwise.

This software is incredibly valuable. According to a Harvard Business School report, the cost to develop equivalent software to widely used open source software packages would be $4.15 billion. However, that pales into insignificance compared to the value that open source software delivers to companies at $8.8 trillion. The report found that enterprises would need to spend 3.5 times more on software than they currently do if open source software did not exist.

With so much at stake, it is no surprise that those who want to make money around open source have gotten involved. Venture capital firms invest in commercial open source companies so they can grow projects and create markets. This can lead to the ideals of open source getting ignored.

The Change Around Redis

With so much money involved, companies have decided that they want more of the potential revenue by changing the license for their software projects. The latest example of this is Redis, when the company changed from an open source license to two “source available” license options that restrict how companies can use Redis software.

The Redis project is the most widely used key value database and one of the biggest databases overall, ranking at number six on DB-Engines. It can play multiple roles within an application, from being the database through to acting as a data cache or as a message broker. This popularity should translate to market demand for services, support, and delivery expertise. Redis Inc. wanted to capitalize on this interest and lock out some forms of competition too.

This is the latest in a series of companies that, over the past few years, have switched licenses to shore up their business models and prevent competition. These organizations have used the value of open source to create a community of users, developers, and companies that are engaged in their projects, then switched licenses to make more money.

This change is normally justified through the argument that this will stop other companies competing for business with the organization that develops the project by hosting a service in the cloud. This goes against the principle of open source software being available for everyone to use. It does not benefit the developers that contribute or manage the project, but the companies that they work for. It is also particularly egregious in the case of Redis, as Redis the company does not even contribute the majority of the code in the project and was not the original company to work on it. It’s therefore understandable that the community around Redis that contributed under a BSD license based on equal rights thought this move ripped them off.

What will the impact of this change in license be? For some users, nothing—they will continue to use the project for their own technology needs under the source-available license. For the cloud providers, they will not be able to use Redis without coming to a financial agreement with Redis Inc.

However, other companies are also affected. If you embedded Redis in your solution, then you now have a choice: Do you rip out Redis and replace it with another open source database, or do you stick with Redis and you can’t call yourself “open source” anymore?

There is a grey area around these changes too, as the rules could be applied much more widely than just targeting a few big enterprises that are cloud providers. When similar features are developed or indirect competition takes place, who decides what is against the license and what the potential costs are? When Redis the company has already reneged on promises to use BSD forever, how can you trust that it will not use its license against you as a competitor?

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